Eight years elapsed between Boston’s second and third albums—a longer period of time than the span between Please Please Me and Let It Be—and fans of Scholz and company were left to wonder what Tommy and his band of merry New Englanders were up to. Rumor had it that Scholz had joined a hippie commune and had spent the fortune he’d earned from music trying to discover the best way to rotate marijuana and rutabaga crops in upstate Massachusetts. In reality, though, he had spent the time in various other, non-hippie-related pursuits, namely a) litigation with his record company, b) developing a way to cram a Marshall stack into a box he could wear on his belt, and c) making fun of his contemporary Meat Loaf, who had gone from Bat Out of Hell to Loaf Out of Luck in just eight short years.
Alas, the period of quietude was certain to end, and end it did, in 1986, when Scholzasaurus and the mighty Boston Rawk Party finally managed to crap out Third Stage. Now, the band’s first album had been introduced to an unsuspecting world by “More than a Feeling”—a tremendous, anthemic song, don’t you agree? Don’t Look Back came out of the gate with “Don’t Look Back”—another tremendous, anthemic song. Third Stage—eight years in the making—opened with none other than “Amanda,” a tremendously schmaltzy, limp-wristed ooze of a ballad.
Where the hell was the “More Than a Feeling” sound? “Long Time” was long gone. No one, certainly not Scholz, appeared to be “Smokin'” much of anything. Though it shot up the charts like my blood pressure at the sight of Glenn Beck, Third Stage managed but one decent rocker, a turbo-fueled humdinger called “Cool the Engines.” But the bulk of the record seemed empty of all that made the band the stadium-rockin’ juggernaut they had been the previous decade.
The album’s finest moment, however, was reserved for its final moment—the most powerful of power ballads, the majestic “Hollyann.” Now, what is one to think of an album that starts out with a devotional to one woman (the aforementioned “Amanda”) and ends with a paean to a different woman? The answer may lie in the context of each song. “Amanda” is pure weepy, loviny-doviny, we’re-gonna-be-together-forever-and-I-gotta-impart-this-revelation-to-you, sentimental mush, albeit impeccably recorded mush (the acoustic guitars sound like they’re piped in from heaven itself).
“Hollyann,” however, packs all of Tom Scholz’s Summer of Love nostalgia and happy hippie vibe into five loud, power-chord-fueled minutes. Addressing the lovely Hollyann directly, he notes that in his mind, “I can see reminders of a past decade” (pronounced decayed by likewise hippiefied pipesman Brad Delp). He reminisces about “the nights you came to me / A blue jean lady so eager to be free” (of course, freedom’s just another word for being stoned, naked, and horizontal in a pasture somewhere). “Aquarius was really meant to be,” he marvels later. Time was when that sentiment would be answered with nods and “yeah, man”‘s and such; by ’86, though, that time had long since passed.
As with the best examples of the power ballad arts, though, the chorus is where the money is. A swell of about 300 iterations of Scholz’s guitar meet an army of 475 Delps in the middle of the studio and, instead of doing battle, they dance like hookers in a Pat Benatar video:
We made the dark into the light.
We saw the wrong and the right.
We were for life
And we would never concede it.
We left the world behind
A million hands gave the sign
We held the line
Can you believe it?
The Delp army wins—the harmonies that converge on the phrases “never concede it” and “can you believe it” never cease to give me goose bumps. Of course, a line like “A million hands gave the sign” opens up all manner of possibilities to the snarkmeister in me (the middle finger, of course, but also the devil horns, the surfer “hang loose,” or even my favorite sign language figure). In all, though, it’s a lighter-worthy chorus, anchoring the song and encapsulating its nostalgic sentiments.
I imagine, however, that all the positive Sixties vibes Scholz espoused were tested when Boston went on tour shortly after Third Stage was released and insisted on devoting a segment of each concert to playing the album in its entirety. It’s not difficult to envision what sign the audience’s hands were giving during that particular death march, but at least they knew that it would culminate with a mighty ballad about peace, love, and “freedom.”
Yes, Sixties nostalgia is a curious thing, but when placed in this decidedly Eighties musical framework, it can also be a powerful thing. Can you believe it?